It takes brains. It takes guts. Most importantly, it takes a lot of heart. To succeed at this level requires putting in years of hard work. It entails rising above the moments of self-doubt. It means overcoming the crushing disappointments. The great ones push through. “Success demands singleness of purpose,” Vince Lombardi once said. These guys would know. After all, it’s what makes them the NFL’s All-Star Philanthropists. (And it probably helps on the field, too.) Some players sacrifice their time. Some give their money. For others, it’s a combination of both. What unites these pigskin philanthropists is their determination to give deeply of themselves.
A walk in the country
Fans of the New York Giants remember George Martin. Martin spent his entire 14-year career playing defensive end for the Giants. A much-feared pass rusher, Martin set an NFL record for touchdowns scored by a defensive lineman. The 6'4" South Carolina native co-captained the squad that won the 1987 Super Bowl.
Martin retired from pro football in 1988. He took a job as vice president of sports marketing at AXA Equitable, and settled with his family in Ringwood, New Jersey. He was doing well. Then came 9/11. It hit him hard. Two of his neighbors, Christian DeSimone and Tyler Ugolyn, died in the terrorist attacks. Martin knew he wanted to help, but didn’t quite know how—until, one day, he read an article in his local paper. He hadn’t realized how many Ground Zero workers were unable to afford proper medical care for the injuries and illnesses they suffered during their rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center.
Rather than just write a check, Martin decided he could help these heroes far more by finding a way to raise awareness of their plight. He wanted to encourage others to support the ailing police, firefighters, and construction workers. And then it hit him: he would bring attention to the issue by walking from the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He was no longer a pro athlete, but he knew he could count on his body for one last drive.
“As a country boy, I have a great affinity for the outdoors,” says Martin, “and I’ve always had the desire to walk across the country and see what this wonderful nation holds. So I decided that walking more than 3,000 miles could be the action that inspires others to support these heroes.”
Martin’s plans caught the attention of Joseph and Carol Reich. When the Reiches learned about Martin’s plans, they responded with a check for $911,000. “My wife and I supported the 9/11 Foundation when it started,” Reich notes. “We were both upset at the way the federal and local government failed to treat real American heroes. When we saw what George was doing, we called him and told him that what he was doing was extraordinary.” Martin left New York on September 16, 2007, the day after the Giants home-opener. He logs about 20 to 30 miles a day. Step after step, mile after mile, Martin had reached the middle of Oklahoma at the time of publication. He usually has three people accompanying him: a security officer, who is usually a retired member of the New York Police Department; a project manager/IT specialist, who documents the journey and serves as the point of contact for mayor’s offices, schools, and community organizations; and a medical technician, who also serves as a driver. Martin carries a GPS tracker that allows his website, ajourneyfor911.info, to follow every inch of his walk. He hopes to reach the end of his trek sometime this spring, and to raise as much money as he can in the process. So far, he’s collected almost $2 million. Martin is modest about his contribution: “It’s an honor for me to get up every morning, get warmed up, and realize that I have a grueling schedule ahead of me. It’s for a cause that’s bigger than anything I’ve ever been associated with.”
The Praying Tailback
Herb Lusk helped anchor the offensive backfield for the Philadelphia Eagles in the mid- to late-70s. But he has anchored charitable causes for much longer, ever since his boyhood days in Memphis and Monterrey.
“My whole life,” he says, “is dedicated to serving humanity and helping the poor.” It’s a big claim, but Lusk can back it up.
The son of a preacher, Lusk made popular the now-familiar post-touchdown ritual of dropping to one knee in prayer. That kind of devotion earned him the nickname “the Praying Tailback.” When he was drafted in 1976, Lusk told the press that he intended to play for only three years; after that, he would enter the ministry. Sure enough, he did. Lusk retired after the 1978 season—one year before he would have begun earning his NFL pension. Instead, he earned a Master’s in Divinity at Philadelphia’s Reformed Episcopal Theological Seminary.
In 1982, Lusk was invited to become the pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in north central Philadelphia. He accepted, even though Greater Exodus was located in a crime-infested neighborhood. The church was over $1 million in debt and had just 17 members.
Lusk realized that he needed to raise the church’s membership if there was to be any hope of recovery. He organized a parade through the north central Philadelphia projects. About 250 neighbors followed the parade back to the church, and the congregation started to grow steadily afterwards. Within seven years, the church had paid all its outstanding debts and made over $1 million in structural improvements.
Having saved his church, Lusk decided it was time for his church to save the community. In 1989, Greater Exodus founded People for People, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people escape substance abuse and get off welfare by providing education, counseling, vocational training, child care, and job placement services. Since 2006, People for People has been a part of the State of Pennsylvania’s Employment, Advancement, and Retention Network (EARN). “There are hundreds of people we’ve helped find gainful employment,” says Lusk. “Many of our own employees—and we have 200 full-time employees—came to us through a welfare-to-work program.”
Lusk encourages entrepreneurship. In 2000, the nonprofit established the People for People Development Credit Union, which promotes financial independence among the residents of north central Philadelphia. The credit union provides financial literacy education, homeownership counseling, reasonable loans, and individual development accounts which match the deposits of account holders dollar for dollar. Moreover, in partnership with Eastern University, People for People established an institute that provides substantial financial assistance to members seeking higher education.
Another focus is primary education. The People for People Charter School opened its doors to 300 students in September 2001, using a modernized eight-story structure that had once been the Philadelphia Traffic Court Building. The school serves first to eighth grade students and focuses on developing entrepreneurial skills, strategic thinking, social responsibility, citizenship, and purpose-filled living. The nonprofit also opened its Early Childhood Development Center in 2005, which seeks to provide quality child care at affordable prices, so that parents can work or search for a new job.
People for People has clearly changed the community for the better. “When I became pastor of Greater Exodus in 1982,” says Lusk, “there was drug activity on our front steps. All of that has completely changed. While nobody would go to North Broad Street in 1982, we now have a five-star restaurant within walking distance of the church. Back then, no one would have thought that possible.”
Lusk hopes to expand his People for People programs to other metropolitan areas. “We believe we have an effective formula that we can export. We might even have a People for People in Houston later this year. I’ve spent a lot of time recently speaking with another star in the ministry there, Derek Caulfield. The key to making these programs work elsewhere, though, is leadership. It’s essential. You can bring programs to another city, but if you don’t have a leader who understands the vision, these programs won’t be sustainable.”
Lusk’s work has gained the attention of President Bush, who visited Greater Exodus in July 2001. Five years later, President Bush appointed Pastor Lusk to his 20-member Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Lusk has been involved over the last few years with promoting awareness of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa through his Stand for Africa program.
All in all, it’s quite an achievement. You might even say that the praying tailback’s prayers have been answered.
Helping Single Parents Help Themselves
It’s not just retirees who are advancing the ball on philanthropy. A number of active players have taken the field, and are already making a difference in their communities.
Take Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn. Dunn grew up in very modest circumstances, in a single-parent household in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His mother put in long hours of overtime just to feed her kids and keep a roof over their heads. As hardworking as she was, though, she died before she was able to buy her own home.
Dunn made it to the NFL in 1997. Suddenly he had wealth the likes of which he once could scarcely have imagined. He decided to dedicate part of his earnings to charity. He wanted to help hardworking single parents attain his mother’s dream of homeownership. In his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he established his Homes for the Holidays program, to help economically disadvantaged single-parent families in the Tampa area purchase their first houses. A year later, he expanded the program to Baton Rouge. When Dunn signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, he incorporated the program into his own foundation and expanded the program to Atlanta. This past December, he also extended the program to Tallahassee, where for the first time he helped a single-father family move into its own home.
From the beginning, Dunn set down fairly strict criteria for determining which families his program would assist. His program works through agencies like Habitat for Humanity and other community development organizations. “We require applicants to take financial courses, submit to a background check, do community service, and maintain a job,” says Dunn. “They also have to get approval for a loan. Once they’ve met all those requirements, then we come in. We’ll give them down payment assistance, furnish their homes, and stock them with other necessities for a new homeowner. We want to make sure the cost of setting up their home doesn’t send them back into bankruptcy. We’ll even help them make a few mortgage payments, but we don’t get to the point where we’re making recurring payments for them. They have to maintain a job and do their part. We’re just giving them a leg up.”
Dunn used $300,000 of his own money to launch his housing program. For its first few years, he kept it running with his own funds. Now, however, 95 percent of the foundation’s funds come from other private donors and fundraisers. It’s not difficult to see why others are buying into Dunn’s program; his passion for these families is palpable. “Many of them are people who have worked their butts off and not been able to save. Some of them have been divorced and are recovering from spousal abuse or drug addiction. Some people have been living in one- or two-bedroom apartments with eight or nine people inside. We give them the opportunity to prove themselves, prove that they’re good citizens.” And with 93 percent of the foundation’s funds going directly into program costs, Dunn’s focus is clearly on helping these people help themselves. And other people have noticed. The Home Depot just named Dunn the inaugural winner of its Home Depot NFL Neighborhood MVP Award.
Today, thanks to Dunn, 74 families own their first homes. But he hopes to help hundreds more over the coming years: “I plan to keep this foundation going even when I’m done playing football. We’re working on establishing an endowment, continuing to improve the program, and adding other programs to the foundation so that we are constantly effecting positive changes in people’s lives.”
Big Ben and the Dogs
Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers has always loved dogs. He also has long had a deep respect for police officers, especially since some of his childhood friends decided “to protect and serve.” So, a couple years ago, when his hometown police department’s service dog, Flip, was shot and killed in the line of duty, Roethlisberger reacted immediately. He gave the department the funds to buy a new dog—and a K-9 ballistic vest.
With support from donations to the program, the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation formally expanded its K-9 support efforts last year to include police departments in the Pittsburgh area—as well as in the metropolitan areas of every city the Steelers visited that season. “We started by contacting the city police department in a given metropolitan area, such as St. Louis, for instance, and go from there, getting an assessment of the area’s needs and determining where we can best allocate the foundation’s resources,” says Roethlisberger. “We’ve learned that many police departments may have the budget for K-9 dogs, but not for ballistic vests.”
“The great value of these dogs is that they’re not just patrol dogs. Many of them are drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, too. They provide invaluable assistance to our nation’s finest, who are risking their lives to protect our cities and ensure our safety.”
Roethlisberger has plans for expanding the program in future years. “You hear about players who don’t put the time and work into a foundation, and it fizzles out eventually. I enjoy taking a hands-on approach with my foundation. And I’ve met many of the dogs that we’ve purchased. I’m looking forward to continuing this program for as long as I can.”
Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor has already made a lasting mark on the NFL. Taylor has racked up 117 sacks over his 11-year career, and just received his sixth invitation to the Pro Bowl. Among his other accomplishments, Taylor recently broke none other than George Martin’s record for touchdowns scored by a defensive lineman.
But Taylor’s philanthropic activities in the Miami area are equally impressive, as the depth and breadth of his programmatic work shows. This wasn’t always the case, though. “Basically,” Taylor admits, “the first eight years of my career I ran around and helped everybody else’s events. I thought I was making an impact, but I felt the best way I could really make an impact was to start my own foundation.” And make an impact he has. The NFL just awarded Taylor its Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, which recognizes both on- and off-the-field excellence.
Taylor’s signature program is the Jason Taylor Scholars. Funded in part by Taylor and by his partner, the nonprofit Take Stock in Children, the program is a comprehensive scholarship and mentoring program that seeks out sixth and seventh grade students living at or below the poverty level. These kids want to succeed, but lack the means and support they need. “In selecting our scholars,” says Taylor, “we talk to the applicants and read their application essays in order to evaluate how much they want and need this program. This vetting process really encourages you to help those people who truly want to help themselves.” The program supported four scholars in 2005 and four more in 2006. It will have three scholars in 2007 and another fifteen in 2009, thanks to a matching funds plan developed by Take Stock in Children.
The program requires each scholar to sign a contract to meet with a mentor weekly, steer clear of drugs and alcohol, keep out of trouble with the law, earn good grades, and demonstrate a strong sense of responsibility in their schools and communities. In return, mentors provide scholars with encouragement to succeed academically and teach coping, social, and other life skills. When scholars successfully graduate from high school, they receive a four-year tuition scholarship through the Florida PrePaid College Program.
Another program Taylor uses to inspire and encourage local children is Big Screens-Big Dreams. Every few months, Taylor hosts a preview screening of an upcoming feature film for local students, accompanied by an inspirational lecture from either Taylor or from one of the film’s stars. For his most recent screening, Taylor invited 250 students from local high school debate teams to watch The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. Three of the film’s young stars spoke to the audience about their own careers, and underscored the power of education to improve people’s lives.
At the same time, Taylor’s wife, Katina, runs a gymnastics, cheerleading, and life-skills program for girls ages seven to twelve. The program, called Camp Katina-Cartwheels to Character, seeks to provide young girls with positive role models. Taylor says he and his wife were concerned with girls who see women degraded in media such as rap videos, and “we want to show them what a woman can be and do.”
Jason and Katina plan to continue helping kids long after his playing career is over. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing our scholars succeed. One of the most important things I’ve learned in working with these kids is that a little bit of love and extra care can give them the encouragement they need to attain their heart’s desire.”
“We’re not a fly-by-night foundation,” Taylor concludes. “I don’t plan to close our doors when I retire. I want to pass this foundation—and the lessons I’ve learned about philanthropy—on to my children.”
That attitude is shared by all the NFL’s most impressive philanthropists. These are hard men with a soft side, who want to share their good fortune with others. Perhaps it’s not too surprising. After all, excellence on the gridiron requires individual initiative, closely linked to a larger team effort. Rather like philanthropy, that.
Michael Leaser is managing editor of Philanthropy